California Supreme Court Justice Edward A. Panelli, his eyes filled with tears, announced Wednesday that he will retire from the high court Jan. 31, a move that gives Gov. Pete Wilson a politically volatile vacancy to fill in an election year.
“After eight years,” said Panelli, 61, dressed in his long black judicial robes, “some of this stuff starts to lose some of its attractiveness and appeal.”
Panelli said the odds are good that Wilson will appoint a woman to succeed him, and several legal analysts agreed that Wilson will be under pressure to appoint a woman or a minority.
“The likelihood is that you are going to have a woman,” said Pasadena lawyer Clifford Anderson, who recommends judicial candidates to the governor’s office.
Justice Joyce L. Kennard, who is part Indonesian, is the only woman and ethnic minority on the state high court. Some analysts predict that Wilson will select a woman to try to appeal to women voters, especially if his gubernatorial opponent next year seems likely to be state Treasurer Kathleen Brown.
Others believe that Wilson may want to choose a minority to defuse criticism that he is anti-immigrant in the wake of his recent attacks on illegal immigration. Wilson has urged that children born in the United States to illegal immigrants be denied citizenship and that health and education benefits be cut off for illegal immigrants.
In a meeting with Wilson last week, Panelli said, he mentioned that a “woman would be good” to replace him. Wilson nodded but “didn’t say a word,” the justice said Wednesday.
The governor, in a prepared statement, praised Panelli as a loyal and dedicated public servant whose retirement leaves “a void on this bench that will not be easy to fill.”
Panelli’s departure is not expected to change the ideological balance of the Supreme Court significantly. Six of the seven justices were appointed by Republicans, and there is a secure conservative majority on most issues. Panelli was appointed to the high court in 1985 by former Gov. George Deukmejian.
Wilson’s only appointment so far is Justice Ronald M. George, who tends to vote with the conservatives.
Lawyers who have advised Wilson on judicial appointments mentioned several women from the federal bench as possible candidates.
They include Lourdes G. Baird, a Latina and former U.S. attorney and now a federal district judge, and Pamela Rymer, a judge on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Minority federal judges mentioned as possible candidates include U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Ferdinand Fernandez.
Although Chief Justice Malcolm Lucas left the federal bench to join the California Supreme Court, many federal judges are reluctant to give up the perks--lifetime tenure and higher pay--that go with the federal jobs. Indeed, a source close to the high court said Rymer had taken herself out of the running for the state high court in the past.
The state Court of Appeal offers Wilson several choices, including Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar in San Francisco. Wilson appointed Werdegar, a former research attorney for Panelli, to the appellate court two years ago. Wilson and Werdegar have been friends since they were classmates at Boalt Hall School of Law at UC Berkeley.
Other possible state appeals court justices cited by sources include Margaret Grignon of Los Angeles, who some say has the disadvantage of not knowing Wilson; Patricia D. Benke of San Diego, who has been considered for the high court in the past, and Patricia Bamattre-Manoukian of San Jose.
Minority candidates from the state appellate courts mentioned as possible candidates included Justice Ming W. Chin, a highly regarded jurist in the 1st Appellate District in San Francisco, and Justice Vance W. Raye, an African-American in the 3rd Appellate District in Sacramento who formerly handled legal affairs for Deukmejian.
Court of Appeal Justices Reuben A. Ortega in Los Angeles, Manuel A. Ramirez in San Bernardino and Gilbert Nares in San Diego also are viewed as likely candidates for the job.
Sheldon Sloan, a Century City attorney who helped advise Wilson on federal judicial appointments when Wilson was a U.S. senator, said the governor tends to look for the best-qualified candidate.
“He is not a crony appointer,” Sloan said. “And I don’t think he will reach for a candidate just to satisfy a minority group. . . . I just think he always looks for the best people.”
Sloan mentioned several white men whom Wilson may also consider from the state Court of Appeal in Los Angeles: Justices Walter H. Croskey of Los Angeles, “a very, very bright guy,” and Justices Norman Epstein and Charles S. Vogel.
Dan Schnur, a spokesman for Wilson, said the governor will soon assemble a list of candidates for Panelli’s seat and will have someone in place when the justice steps down Jan. 31. A source close to the governor said a high priority will be given to finding women and minority candidates.
Panelli said he would like to become baseball commissioner, but added that he has not had any discussions with anyone about the job and that getting it would be a long shot.
Of his accomplishments on the court, Panelli said: “I think I brought a lot of common sense to the way the court worked, especially behind the scenes. I think in certain cases I have been able to bring people together.”
He said he plans to go to Italy for a couple of months to brush up on his Italian and to rest. “I have worked since the time I was 6 years old,” he said, “and I want to be able for a while not to work.”
Times staff writer Daniel M. Weintraub in Sacramento and researcher Norma Kaufman in San Francisco contributed to this story.